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Tony Jaa's The Protector sheds 25 minutes and tramples its way into American theaters as one of the most delirious martial arts movies in recent years. Could the Weinsteins have been right all along?
With the new DVD for S.P.L. (or should I say Kill Zone) a surprisingly respectful affair, the Weinstein Company seems to be entering a new phase for filtering Asian cinema. Hiring Hong Kong cinema buff Bey Logan to assist with film distribution and DVD production, the Weinsteins (once so despised for their hack and shack jobs as heads of “Miram-axe”) have launched the new banner “Dragon Dynasty” as a sort of upscale portal for Asian action fans in the U.S.
I’m still a little suspicious (and more than a little bitter), but boy can I breathe easier now that I’ve seen the first Dragon Dynasty theatrical release, The Protector, Tony Jaa’s follow-up to his international blockbuster Ong Bak. Clocking in at 84 minutes, a good 25 minutes shorter than the version that circulated in Asia late last year, The Protector is one of the most breakneck and breathless action films I’ve seen in a while, and I have a sickly feeling the reason for its velocity and power is precisely because of the cuts, allegedly demanded by the film’s foreign sales agent TF1.
So I’m faced with a dilemma. Do I praise the American release version for its incredible visceral accomplishment? Or must I qualify my enthusiasm with a critique of Western corporate censorship?
Here we’re faced again with the aura of the original, that distracting allure of artistic purity. Is the 84 minute version less authentic because it’s not the “director’s cut” or premiere version? In many cases – as with Miramax’s belated U.S. release of Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer – the motivation is financial and culturally chauvinistic: cut the scenes that Americans probably don’t like, dub the film, and change all foreign signs into English. While I would retain that version (alongside the Asian version) since it’s of historical importance as well as an illustrative cultural oddity, it’s impossible for me to embrace it as anything close to definitive.
But this new version of The Protector is different because it represents an altogether new artistic vision. It’s not surprising that the re-edit has Quentin Tarantino’s name attached. Like Q.T.’s Kill Bill, what it lacks in “authenticity” it gains in a dazzling new reconceptualization of the genre. Like Kill Bill, Wu-tang Clan maestro The RZA does the music (a completely new score in collaboration with composer Howard Drossin). And like Kill Bill, it represents and then explores certain (American?) values about Asian action that may not be authentic to the original, but are authentic to its international audience.
The new version essentially gets rid of all the drama and character development; what’s left is a heart attack of non-stop action. The few times the film depicts emotions and drama, we’re completely confused because there are glaring holes missing. But those scenes pass quickly enough to maintain a pounding momentum, stomping to RZA’s hip-hop beats, culminating continuously to an unforgettable finale before fading out just before the denouement. The cuts are sometimes jarring, but too exciting for you to care. In an early sequence, Tony Jaa’s character is fighting indoors. Then the film cuts to him in the middle of an ocean pursuit, with motorboats flying through billboards, crashing into piers, dodging machinegun fire, and racing through fireballs. Are we missing something or was it that discontinuous in the original? If your conception of Asian action includes non-stop thrills, does it matter?
It helps that as the film progresses to its own breathless pace, we witness some of the most incredible action set-pieces in recent years. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Tony Jaa decapacitates a room of two dozen or so villains by cracking their arms, legs, and groins, one by one. In another amazing scene, we see him running away from his pursuers in a narrow alleyway. On the left is a fence and on the right is a brick wall. We’ve seen Jackie Chan do it countless times: he’ll run up the wall without using his hands, leaving the bad guys in the dust. But imagine this: he runs toward the camera which tracks backwards as Jaa runs forward. He starts to ascend magically, one leg running up the fence, the other up the wall. Then the camera decelerates as Jaa runs up and OVER THE CAMERA. A novice stuntman wouldn’t be allowed to risk tripping and breaking expensive equipment, but Jaa is no novice. How’s that for authenticity?
And then there’s the scene that will cement The Protector's legacy. As the film nears its climax, there is a four-minute single take of Jaa winding up a large staircase, treading through several floors of a restaurant, wrecking havoc on every hitman in his way. The single take makes so much more powerful the merciless way he rips his way through his opposition as he lets his rage take over. The choreography is as intricate as it is sensational. As Jaa walks up the stairs, he often disappears from the camera’s view, sometimes drifting out of the frame, sometimes disappearing behind walls or objects. But every time he reappears, it yields a surprise: sometimes he drops down from the top of the frame, sometimes from the side; sometimes he pops back into view as he throws somebody through the wall which blocks him from us; sometimes he reappears holding a weapon, like a large porcelain vase to be lunged at the nearest villain.
I haven’t mentioned the story yet, except that it doesn’t really exist in the shortened version anymore. What’s left of it suggests that Jaa’s mission is to save two elephants kidnapped in his native Thailand by human and animal traffickers in Australia. According to the film’s prologue, the elephants represent the spirit of Muay Thai, the ancient and famous Thai martial art. As in Ong Bak, Muay Thai represents Thai purity and ethnic conservatism. It also stands for family and tradition in the face of corporate exploitation and multi-national trade. The anti-Westernization of the message (a trademark of many films in the genre) is so obvious and clockwork that it’s easy for the plot to make sense even when it is trimmed to a bare minimum.
But vestiges of something more nuanced remain. In the Australia scenes, we sense that part of the film’s conflicts stems from the interaction between the Thai community in Sydney and the dominant white population. We hear Jaa’s character called a monkey by white locals and assumed to be an illegal immigrant by a taxi driver. We see a Thai policeman facing suspicions by his superior. Further, we see a contrast between the rich and corrupt Chinese Australians and the more working-class Thais. This depiction of transient and displaced Thais never comes off as particularly compelling or new – nor does it escape the cultural conservatism at the core of the film – but perhaps it’s because the Weinstein edits prohibit the film from delving deeper into those aspects of the story. It’s also worth noting that the Weinstein version has a different title than the Asian release. The original title is Tom Yum Goong, the name of a Thai dish, but also the name of the Chinese-Thai restaurant in Sydney that fronts as the bad guys’ headquarters. The change from a title denoting an Asian Australian community (and its discontents) to a title describing an action superstar (and his ecoterrorizing fury) suggests that story and cultural hybridity is less important to the distributor and sales agent than generic transparency and the charisma of the next Jackie Chan. Likewise, the Thai poster of the film emphasizes the symbol of the elephant on the Muay Thai warrior; the US poster emphasizes only the warrior.
But as a film that sets out to be non-stop action, The Protector is innovative, unpredictable, and audacious. Complete with a faux Jackie Chan cameo, The Protector indeed does position Jaa as the next world action star. And for once, I buy the hype. Jaa is a cinematic tour de force. His expressions are average, but his movements are mind-blowingly visual. Jaa’s long arm and leg extensions are fast and dynamic – the sort of thing widescreen was invented for. In that way, Jaa’s movements are closer to Bruce Lee with his manic roundhouse kicks and laser-quick punches than Jackie Chan, who relies more on clever uses of space than pure corporeal stimulation. Ong Bak was fun, but ultimately uninspired and conventional despite Jaa’s acrobatics; more so than its predecessor, The Protector (and not Tom Yum Goong) will be the film to lunge Jaa into the American consciousness.
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Date Posted: 9/7/2006